How to Prepare For University in High School

Posted 7 months ago
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Ah, the days of our youth.

During our formative years at school, parents packed our lunch, teachers explained exactly what to study and when, and your friends and academic support could all be found in the same place every day... the classroom!

What a simple life it was.

At every stage, you have someone holding your hand and guiding you through your academic journey.

Now, not to scare the crapola out of you, but that simple, fun, easy life will all change once you head to university.

The guided learning of high school evolves into self-directed learning, or "self-study", where you're the captain, first mate and deck hand of the metaphorical ship that is your education!

Luckily for you, you've found this blog, so you can learn how to self-study early and get ready for life as a big, grown up university student.

This will not only make the transition to uni life easier, but it can also improve your chances of gaining admission, particularly if your goal is to study abroad at a top-ranked university.

You may have been putting your future plans on the backburner for a while, but now it's time to step up and start adequately preparing for life beyond fruit roll-ups and juice boxes.

Okay, maybe that's a bit too far, I'll never stop drinking from juice boxes! (Love you, grandma.)

But seriously, let's look at some of the ways you can start your self-studying journey today!

Top four self-study methods

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1. Choose subjects you love

You know that saying, “love what you do and it won’t feel like work”? That applies here.

Okay, the “L word” might be a little strong. After all, it’s school and you’re not exactly free to do whatever you want.

At the very least, though, you need to enjoy what you study.

Choosing subjects you are very interested in – whether it’s because of the material or because they pave the way for you to enter a career or education trajectory you are excited about – will make the self-studying process a lot easier.

Of course, this is easier said than done.

Subject selection is a big deal when you’re at school, and it’s all too easy to get stuck in one that you don’t like.

One way to avoid the tragedy of selecting the wrong subjects is to start thinking about them early. (That is, if you’re not in already in your final year! In which case, move to the next section.)

The middle school years are great for exploring interests.

Often you'll be given two to three electives to choose each term, so why not try a little bit of everything.

Like cooking? Why not try home economics?

Like working with your hands? What about design and technology?

Like working with numbers? Why not go up a level in maths! Now’s the time to test your limits before the marks really matter.

Once you've spent the middle years of high school experimenting, it'll be time to select your subjects for the year that counts.

Your subjects can play a major role in the direction you take beyond high school, and often university courses will have prerequisites, so consider them carefully before you finalise selection.

There are a number of important things you need to take into account pre subject selection, including your passions, interests, strengths, weaknesses, and most importantly, potential career and university pathways.

Tips to select the perfect subjects:

  • Don't just consider your passions, but your strengths, too. After all, you want to get a strong mark.

  • Understand subject scaling. Often high school subjects will be scaled up or down for fairness. Make sure you're aware of how your chosen subjects scale to prevent any surprises come results time.

  • Meet university course entry requirements. If you know what you want to study, make sure you're meeting all the selection criteria, which may involve taking certain subjects.

2. Keep busy

Fun fact: the busiest students do the best at school!

When you are pressed for time because you have a lot of engagements, subjects, and things you need to do, you force yourself to be more efficient.

You dramatically reduce procrastination because you just don’t have time to waste!

Many students underestimate what they can handle because they are so used to studying and homework taking so long.

But think about it. How much time do you actually spend studying? And by that, I mean, how much time do you spend focusing?

Once you take out all the time spend on Facebook, walking to the fridge and back (multiple times), and just daydreaming, I bet your actual study time becomes quite insignificant!

Don’t feel bad about it – it’s totally normal.

Subconsciously you know that you can afford to procrastinate, so you do! That’s why so many of us end up finishing assignments the night before they’re due, because it’s not until it gets to the last minute that we’re really able to knuckle down and pump the work out.

But that’s just because you love the adrenaline rush, right?!

It might seem counterproductive, but the way to prevent this from happening is to reduce the time you allocate to study.

Get a part-time job, join a gym, take up pottery classes with a friend, or go to visit your grandma every Wednesday afternoon.

Whatever it is you choose to fill most of your non-school hours with, just make sure it doesn’t involve you sitting at a desk.

If your schedule is jam-packed with activity after activity, you have no choice but to be extremely effective in the time you have left to study.

3. Get a tutor

Students often think of a tutor as someone who helps you catch up, so unless you’re falling behind a subject, you probably think you’re fine without one.

But a tutor can offer so much more than that! He or she can help you to optimise your learning experience.

You may have heard of Crimson’s founder, Jamie Beaton, who was dux of his school in New Zealand and was accepted into 25 top-ranked universities around the world. Well, despite being academically gifted and a seasoned self-studier, he also had tutors in six subjects.

Yep, six! Biology, chemistry, physics, maths, French, English.

Jamie was already the top student at his school, so why did he need tutoring?

Because he was thinking beyond his classroom, his school, and even his country. Jamie was already planning to attend a top university overseas and he knew he would need to stand out as an applicant.

A tutor focuses on your needs and directs your study accordingly. One of Jamie’s goals was to be Top in the World for English Literature and that was exactly what he achieved with the help of his tutor.

He couldn’t possibly have received the same intensity of instruction and specific advice he needed to make this happen in a high school classroom environment.

Okay, so Jamie might be an extreme example, but it goes to show that tutoring isn’t just for struggling students, and there’s no shame in getting a little extra help on the side!

Whatever your academic goal, a tutor can help you get there – and much quicker.

There are plenty of amazing tutors who have actually sat the exams before you and therefore knows the most important content to study and what it takes to do well.

A tutor who has already mastered the content, crushed the exam, and is focused on your personalised tests dramatically optimises your learning experience.

4. Go beyond the constraints of the classroom

At school, you might find it hard to meet the academic standard in some subjects. This is where the tutoring comes in handy!

In other subjects, however, it can feel like you're being held back by the schooling system.

Think about the traditional school environment. Classes of 20+ students are usually taught at a median level, meaning that high performing students and weaker students are somewhat neglected as teachers seek to do the best for the most people.

It doesn't have to be this way.

If you find a subject you enjoy, and your school classes aren't satisfying your hunger for learning, don't be afraid to pursue it beyond the classroom!

You may love writing but your English classes aren’t challenging enough. If that’s the case, then find an online writing course, take part in a creative writing competition, or start a blog!

There are plenty of things you can do to develop your skills outside of school.

The same goes for subjects that you haven’t taken at school, or that aren’t part of your curriculum.

I’ll use Jamie as an example again, because he’s just so good at this self-study thing!

Prior to starting his applied mathematics-economics degree at Harvard University, Jamie had never actually taken an economics class… ever!

He discovered his passion for economics accidentally when he was doing some “semi-structured” learning outside the classroom.

This involved:

  1. Setting aside time every day to explore a new subject outside of the curriculum.

  2. Reading books on any new subject that excited him.

  3. Carving out time each week to study these new texts in great detail.

  4. Practically applying this knowledge through practice exams, or in Jamie's case, testing his newfound finance skills in dummy stock markets.

Now he has a double degree from Harvard and, at 19, became the youngest ever analyst at Wall Street hedge fund, Tiger Global.

I guess you could say self-study pays dividends!

How self-study improves your university candidacy


It goes without saying that learning how to self-study effectively will give you a serious boost in the marks department, which will definitely improve your chances of gaining admission into a top university overseas.

But if you don't already know, universities in the US and UK favour students who are more than just strong academically.

The world's best universities look to admit well-rounded applicants.

A well-rounded applicant is a student who has shown passion, interest and dedication beyond the classroom, as well as inside it.

The students who are capable of more than just understanding complicated theories and getting top marks (though this definitely helps).

Universities love it if you can show that you've pursued a passion beyond the classroom, though in slightly different ways depending on the country you’re planning to study in.

UK universities like to see that you’re involved in activities related to what you want to study. So if you’re into history, take up a job in a museum, go on tours of old jails and historical sites, and read lots of books recounting bygone eras. This proves you have a real interest in the field, and that you’ll bring passion to your studies.

US universities, on the other hand, don’t have a preference for what you do outside of school. They just want to see that you’re involved in activities that don’t involve studying and that challenge you in some way. They look for students who will bring something unique to their college and who will enhance the culture in some way, so you can really show your personality in a US university application!

International study: college tips for high school students

On the back of all these tips and insights, if you wish to study at a university overseas, there are some additional elements you need to consider.

For example, it may be worth studying an international high school curriculum such as the IB or CIE, which can strengthen your application (the IB moreso for the US, and the CIE moreso for the UK).

Additionally, the process for international applications is not as simple as domestic application, particularly if you're from outside the US or the UK.

As well as extracurricular activities, which I covered earlier, you need to sit standardised tests (the ACT or SAT for US colleges), application essays, and financial aid and scholarship options, just to name a few things!

If this is the path you wish to go down, make sure you start preparing early.

Colleges in the US may look at your academic grades all the way back to year 8 or 9, so don't assume it’s just your final year that counts.

It's not as if you can just scramble together all this information in the dying moments and expect to be a successful applicant!

It takes preparation, research and hard work to gain admission into the top-tier international schools.

If you're killing it academically at 15, you could be in line to secure a place at an Ivy League or Oxbridge university!

International university application tips:

  • The admissions processes are notoriously complicated, and often schools aren't adequately set up to help students with international applications. Try reaching out to experts who can demystify the process and take the stress off you during your final years of high school.

  • Work hard! If you're serious about international studies, you'll need to put in the effort. The Harvards and Oxfords of the world are the best for a reason: they're damn good! Gaining admission, in turn, is seriously competitive.

  • This might be a stretch, but if you’re in the UK or Singapore, attending one of these high schools that got a whole bunch of offers to Cambridge in 2016 could help.

Self-study takeaways

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At university, you have to organise your own study schedule, so if you start doing this while you're in high school, you'll be well ahead of the curve.

Self-study skills may be hard to develop but they'll seriously help you down the track, so don't discount them!

Not to mention furthering your knowledge beyond the classroom can really improve your university candidacy as an international student.

Self-study tips:

  • Don't be afraid to venture down rabbit holes. When you're studying as part of a school curriculum, you're limited to the amount of knowledge you can learn about any given subject. With self-studying, there are no limitations. Don't be afraid to follow new trains of thought or explore new fields of interest. If it sparks your interest, go for it. Who knows, it might lead to your career path!

  • If you're finding studying beyond the curriculum to be overwhelming, try using the "pomodoro strategy”. This is a research method where you work in 20 minute increments with five minute breaks in between. It's been proven to increase productivity.

  • Self-studying should be fun and explorational, because you're pursuing subjects that you like! If it has become a drain, try pursuing a new interest. You don't want to burn yourself out!

Start thinking about your future, today!

Ivy league school admission - Other Options Berkeley

I know, I know.

Being told to think about what comes after graduation while you're still in high school can seem weird!

And I mean, seriously, if you're only 14 or 15, why should you feel that you need to think about a career yet?

Well, you don't.

Not a career anyway, but your future, yes.

While it can feel a little premature, it's actually really helpful to think about what you love doing and how it could become an important part of your life later on.

Relax! It doesn't mean you have to choose what you want to do right away,

You're not locking yourself into a career,

It just means you should start considering what you can see yourself doing as adult, and what will make you happy.

Basic, yes, but too many people lose sight of this and end up in careers that they don't like. They let their passions take a back seat.

So, ask yourself: what do I like doing? And what am I good at? (A winning career combination!)

Is it maths?




Or maybe media?

Whatever it is you enjoy, start exploring university courses and career pathways in that field.

And remember, nothing is written in stone, so don't let the fear of pursuing a career path at a young age scare you.

All I’m saying is to start thinking about it.

Important tip to change your life:

It's never too early to start considering your future, but it can be too late!

Final thoughts

The key to preparing yourself for college in high school is mastering the art of self-study.

If in doubt, just remember Jamie Beaton’s example.

Over several years, Jamie developed many processes and approaches that helped him ace the 10 A levels and 12 NZQA scholarships he sat, all while preparing for applications for 25 overseas universities – all while having an absolute blast!

Use the tips in this blog to get into a self-directed study routine now, because once you get to university, you’ll only have yourself to depend on.

And remember – taking your learning beyond the classroom can greatly improve your candidacy for international universities!

There's no pressure to choose what or where you'd like to study now, so don't fear being locked into your future too soon.

Enjoy your time at high school, but try to keep your future in the back of your mind.

If you find you love design classes at high school, or you're fascinated by the different scientific theories you're being taught, consider those areas as potential career paths.

You’re in charge of your future, so start preparing today to make it the best it can possibly be!

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